Beasts of the Eastern Wild


The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is now embodied in two boxers. Twitter users have been spreading a photo of Russian boxer Nikolai “Beast from the East” Valuev, the 7-foot-1, 320-pound former heavyweight champ, as he towers over a pro-Russian crowd outside a government building in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol, where gunmen seized the regional parliament.

“I arrived in Sevastopol to support residents of Crimea. Friends, Russia is with you!” Valuev wrote on Twitter.

Rival Vitali “Dr. Iron Fist” Klitschko, the 6-foot-7 Ukrainian who once called Valuev a “chicken,” is a parliamentarian who is part of the movement that toppled the government in Kiev last weekend. Calls for the two to duke it out are resounding across Twitter.

Back in 2004, when the Orange Revolution was underway in Kiev, I wrote a story on the support Klitschko was finding in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. Ukrainian President Yanukovich, recently ousted again, was reviled by most Chicago Ukrainians (as he is now), and Klitchko’s World Boxing Council title match against British slugger Danny Williams symbolized something greater for the Ukrainian people.

The windows of Nikolai Baranovsky’s electronics shop on Chicago Avenue tell the story of two fights that have fired the imagination of Ukrainians around the world.

On one side is a poster of presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, whose supporters have protested in Kiev to overturn the results of an election that was ruled fraudulent.

Nearby is a poster for Vitali Klitschko, a 6-foot-7 Ukrainian heavyweight who will defend his World Boxing Council title against British slugger Danny Williams in Las Vegas on Saturday.

On the streets of Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, Klitschko’s fight has taken on a deep symbolism in a time of renewed national pride–particularly since Klitschko, 33, is a backer of Yushchenko’s populist battle against the official winner, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. A new election will be held Dec. 26. …

In a conference call in 2004, Klitschko praised the street demonstrators and said he hoped his fight would inspire them and draw attention to Ukraine. As I wrote for the Trib:

Ukraine is struggling because the leaders who once were communists have changed their colors and now claim to be democratic, Vitali Klitschko told reporters. But their way of governing hasn’t changed, he said.

“That is why there are millions of people coming outside in the street to demonstrate peacefully,” the champion said. “Nobody drinks alcohol. It has been very peaceful. After every one of my fights in Ukraine, they hear me speak about freedom, liberty and free press, but now it is hopefully happening.”

This time around it wasn’t so peaceful, but Klitschko was part of the opposition in the parliament that unseated Yanukovych.

Valuev is widely regarded as a towering monster. Twitter users are scoffing at his Neanderthal appearance. But boxing promoter Trayce Zimmermann of Trayce ZPR offers a reminder that you can’t judge a boxer by his mug. (Politics, on the other hand, are fair game.) Trayce wrote to me on Facebook:

Valuev was quite misunderstood and often viewed as a freak. Very well read and educated, he was very shy, due, I think, to his gigantism. Always a devastating puncher and formidable simply because of his size, he had a good run as champion and KO’d Monte Barrett in the 11th round at the Allstate Arena in 2006. Don King (and I) did an extensive media tour here to promote the bout including a press conference at the top of the Sears Tower. “Two Giants.” DK tried for years to make a fight between his Russian and either Klitschko brother. I doubt Valuev would return to the ring now. He’s too smart and likely doesn’t need the money. Certainly, VK won’t ever fight again. He’s too busy fighting the biggest fight.

She adds that one of the few words Valuev knew in English was “Macy’s,” and he went shopping in suburban Oak Brook.

He loved to shop for his wife and kids. Clothes. Of course, he couldn’t find anything at all for himself. I felt sorry for him. People were always staring at him like a circus freak.

The world, and not just boxing fans, is interested in seeing how this fight ends.


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